Sue Desmond-Hellmann says it's time for her to leave the Gates Foundation. Strategy chief Mark Suzman will now take the helm
Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the longtime researcher and executive who helped lead Genentech to develop the first gene-targeted cancer therapies, is stepping down after 5 years as CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Stepping down as CEO of@GatesFoundation is, without a doubt, the toughest decision of my career,” she wrote in the first of a series of tweets announcing and reflecting on her departure. “But one of my mantras is ‘take your own pulse first.’ Over the last few months, I’ve done just that and concluded that I need to slow down.”
Mark Suzman, the foundation’s president of Global Policy & Advocacy and chief strategy officer, will now take over as the new CEO. Suzman joined the foundation 12 years ago and takes the new role officially on February 1, 2020.
Desmond-Hellmann was named CEO of the massive charity in 2013, after years at the top of Genentech and a stint as the first woman chancellor of the University of California San Francisco. She was the first physician to lead the foundation and during her tenure launched what was billed as the first nonprofit biotech, the Gates Medical Research Institute, a move she recalled as one of her top achievements.
I’ve always believed everyone deserves a great manager, and I’m confident that the organizational and management processes I set up to make us better decision-makers will endure at @gatesfoundation. pic.twitter.com/Ihq8NWCHjF
— Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann (@SueDHellmann) December 5, 2019
Recently, the longtime researcher cut down on work outside the foundation and said today she was leaving to focus on herself and her family.
Desmond-Hellmann got her start in medicine as a kid, hanging around and sometimes bookkeeping at the drugstore her parents owned in Reno, Nevada. In later years, she talked about how watching her father interact kindly with the people who came in made her want to become a doctor. After she graduated from the University of Nevada, she took an intern job at UCSF in 1982, her formative years as a physician spent at the beginning and center of the AIDS/HIV crisis. After several years working on the virus and Kaposi’s sarcoma, she and her husband — Nicholas Hellmann, also a young UCSF doctor — moved to Uganda to do similar work.
“We were approached by the Rockefeller Foundation to study heterosexual HIV transmission in Africa, so my husband Nick and I sold our Honda Civics, sublet our apartment, and hopped on a plane,” she recalled to Reuters in July. “We were extremely isolated. When we came back from Uganda, we never complained about anything ever again.”
She fell into drug development two years after they returned to Nicholas’ home state of Kentucky, when they both took positions at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Connecticut in 1993. She worked on Taxol, a chemotherapy drug originally derived from Pacific yew bark and first FDA-approved shortly before her arrival.
“It was like I had been training my whole life for that job,” Desmond-Hellmann told the New York Times in 2011.
At the time, Genentech hadn’t developed any cancer drugs. The legacy biotech brought Desmond-Hellmann back to San Francisco in 1995 to help build that pipeline and promoted her to chief medical officer the following year.
Arthur Levinson, the CEO of Genentech during her tenure, described her to the New York Times as a shrewd executive, who was able to use her oncology and statistical background to choose the best drugs — and was also able to tell researchers when their projects weren’t being chosen.
“She’s a very nice person, so this did not come naturally to her,” Levinson said. “But she got it quickly. She became a tough leader, tough in a positive sense. She was willing to make tough calls without much difficulty.”
Over 14 years at Genentech, she oversaw the development of Avastin and Herceptin, the first gene-targeted cancer therapies.
She left the company when it was bought out by Roche in 2009, leaving as head of product development, and soon went on to become chancellor of UCSF (where there was a brief controversy over her tobacco investments, which she immediately sold off.). She joined the Gates Foundation in 2014.
As CEO she oversaw a bevy of public health programs and, in 2018, the launch of the Gates Medical Research Institute in Cambridge, MA, luring executives from Novartis and Merck and other top biotech firms to fill out the leadership team.
The institute launched with a budget of $100 million and targets the Gates Foundation had long pursued: malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrheal diseases. The idea was to help directly develop drugs that the market wasn’t incentivizing, including a malarial vaccine. Their first big project is testing if a booster shot of Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, the tuberculosis vaccine already given to infants, could help improve immunity for adolescents.
“What keeps me awake is we have all this capital, we have all this opportunity and we better get something done,” Desmond-Hellmann told Forbes last year. “We better do some good in the world, or I will not feel good about leading in the Gates Foundation.”